American Revolution

The Subjects of Liberty

The words ‘‘liberty’’ and ‘‘rights’’ had far different connotations for people in the American colonies, depending on their status as slaves, free blacks, Native Americans on their homeland, women, indentured servants, loyalists, conscripted soldiers, religious dissidents, radical patriots, or propertied white males. The term ‘‘civil liberties’’ was not a term used in the period between 1760 and 1783. Many of the colonists depended on the rights they claimed as English citizens. For those with limited rights based on their English origins, a new understanding of rights was required; for others, the rights they claimed had far different origins in their understandings as indigenous peoples of the American or African continent.

Most of the history of the era has focused on the propertied white male colonist and his revolution against the British king and Parliament. Whether his battle was to retain rights as a citizen of the British Empire or to retain the unique habit of independence as an American colonist, he remained at the heart of the investigation of the causes of the American Revolution.

Many colonists viewed the indigenous populations as ‘‘savages’’ existing outside the polity of the colonial, state, or federal governments. The sovereign nations had their own views of the rights of people in relation to community. The five nations of the Haudenosaunee, in their Great Binding Law (Gayanashgowa, for example), demonstrated working concepts of confederation, and included, for example, rights of the people to deliberate and be consulted in times of dire threat to the tribes. The question of the relations between the revolutionary government and the tribal nations was not an issue of civil rights. The growing protection for colonial property rights, however, increasingly allowed the revolutionary states to encroach on Native American sovereign lands.

The free black population, particularly in the northern colonies, gradually increased as the events moved toward revolution. Slaves and free blacks expected that the cry for liberty and civil rights by the American colonists should include freedom and the end of slavery in the colonies. Petitions were sent to colonial governments seeking the end of slavery as well as, in some cases, receipt of land as compensation for involuntary servitude. While these petitions had little effect on the colonial governments, they did resonate with a number of state governments once the war began.

Between 1780 and 1804, eight states—including the fourteenth state, Vermont—abolished slavery outright or passed gradual abolition laws to end slavery over the course of the next few decades. Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 noted the inconsistency of fighting for liberty against the British while maintaining slavery. In some states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Vermont, blacks gained complete political equality; in others they gained freedom, but not the ballot. The southern states did not end slavery, but a few, such as Virginia, allowed for voluntary manumission of slaves and most reduced the harshness of punishments for slaves and free blacks.

Many black males were manumitted in exchange for long service in the continental army. Some entered military service of their own accord and others were volunteered to substitute their service for the service of their white slave owners. Many white southerners objected to allowing blacks to serve in the army. They feared uprisings among the slave population and objected to serving alongside black slaves or freedmen. In some cases the black soldiers were given service functions, such as jobs as cooks, drivers, or laborers, instead of fighting positions. Often, however, events necessitated an abandonment of this policy as the battles intensified. Black soldiers performed heroic acts in many of these battles; many had been slaves at the beginning of the Revolution and were able to gain their freedom through military service.

An undetermined number of white male indentured servants sometimes were released from their contractual bond in exchange for enlistment in the army. The rights of indentured servants were not, however, a focus of the revolutionary efforts to secure political and civil rights.

Women were represented by every possible status within the colonies, and whether they were southern female slaves or patriot or loyalist wives of propertied colonists, their plight was ignored by those who articulated the goals of the revolution. Their rights, except in the case of those included in manumissions, were not significantly improved as a result of the Revolution. The rights of white married women and widows may have diminished after the revolution as the law became more rigidly applied to their limited legal identity. Prior to and during the revolution, some of these women exercised a wider range of economic and legal power under circumstances that necessitated their action. Single women retained the power to own property, sue in court, and inherit property. However, during and after the Revolutionary period, some women, such as Mercy Otis Warren, participated in politics by writing essays and pamphlets. In New Jersey women gained the right to vote during the Revolution, although they would lose this right in the early 1800s.

The fight for liberty in the face of governmental oppression did not necessarily pertain to colonists, labeled ‘‘Tories’’ or ‘‘Loyalists,’’ who refused to join the revolutionary cause. They suffered loss of life, liberty, and due-process protections at the hands of American patriots who were fighting to secure liberties for themselves. Loyalty oaths were demanded of all men over the age of sixteen. Taxes were imposed at much higher rates than those imposed on patriots. Property was confiscated; many opponents of the revolutionary cause were imprisoned, tarred and feathered, or exiled. The military and the colonial governments asserted jurisdiction to investigate, bring to trial, and punish those who spoke in support of remaining loyal to the king.

Despite the denial of due process or freedom of expression to Tories, the Revolution had a profound affect on civil liberties. Before the war, the British used arbitrary searches—writs of assistance—to look for smuggled goods and weapons. The British tried to move trials of Americans overseas, denying them access to witnesses, counsel, and juries of their peers. The war began with the British trying to seize the munitions of the Concord militia. The colonists petitioned the king, but received no response and felt cut off from having a voice in government. During the war, pamphleteers and newspaper editors pushed the patriot agenda with the printed word. These experiences led to demands after the war that culminated in the Bill of Rights, protecting the rights of petition and jury trials, banning warrantless searches, and prohibiting the federal government from disarming the state militias. Even the deprivations of Tory rights affected Americans. A number of states used bills of attainder to arrest Tories, but they did so with some discomfort, knowing that such behavior violated fundamental rights. Not surprisingly, such behavior was banned in the Constitution.

Historical Interpretations of the Revolution

Any description of liberties and rights during the period from 1760 until 1783 must take into account the different perspectives, the changes of the components of liberty and rights articulated by the people over time, and the school of historical thought reflected by the particular description of the period. Perhaps no period has received so much attention from historians with so little agreement.

During the nineteenth century George Bancroft’s ten-volume History of the United States offered the accepted ‘‘Whig’’ interpretation of the American Revolution. The Whig party opposed the power of the Stuart kings in the seventeenth century on the basis that the English tradition of liberties was protected in the unwritten constitution. Bancroft and earlier historians, including Mercy Otis Warren and David Ramsay, described the Revolution as the reaction against parliamentary conspiracies to deprive the colonists of their rights as English citizens. American colonists viewed themselves as retaining the rights identified in England with the grant of the Magna Carta in 1215 and the Petition of Rights in 1628. Although not always followed by king or Parliament, these documents limited their powers and guaranteed that freemen could not be taken, imprisoned, or disseized of life, property, or liberties without due process of law.

Parliamentary actions that allowed general warrants to search any colonial home for smuggled goods (Writs of Assistance 1761) and imposed taxes and duties on commercial items including paper (The Stamp Act of 1765), sugar (The Sugar Act of 1774), and tea (The Townshend Revenue Act of 1767) pushed the colonists to articulate their right to give consent by way of proper representation in Parliament before property could be taken from them. James Otis, one of the early opponents of the use of arbitrary power against the colonists, resigned his government position in order to argue against the practice of searching homes without specific warrants. In boycotts and other acts of open defiance to taxes imposed by Parliament, the colonists vigorously objected to being deprived of property without representation and also fought to ensure their right to petition concerning their grievances against the king and Parliament. Freedom of the press was understood as an essential tool in efforts to oppose arbitrary and oppressive use of power. Free speech was an idea initially subsumed by the fight for a free press.

In response to the punitive ‘‘coercive’’/‘‘intolerable acts’’ of 1774, the colonists met in Philadelphia at the First Continental Congress and identified a number of the rights that were threatened by Parliament at that time. ‘‘The Declaration and Resolves’’ issued by the Congress on October 14, 1774, reaffirmed their belief that colonists retained all of their rights as free natural-born subjects of England, and reiterated the right not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without consent; the right to be tried by a jury of their local peers before an independent judiciary; and the right to peaceably assemble and petition the king with their grievances. In further documents, the Congress criticized the expanded jurisdiction of admiralty and vice admiralty courts that deprived the colonists of their right to a jury trial.

The focus of this early historical interpretation pits the struggles of the enfranchised male colonist against the arbitrary exercise of power and oppression by the British Parliament and the king. The developing nationalist unified view shared by all such colonists led to the ensuing revolution and creation of the Declaration of Independence. It also fostered a sense of rights and liberties that needed protection from arbitrary and oppressive interference from government. According to this view the colonists were primarily influenced by John Locke’s theories.

The arguments of the wealthy, intellectual colonists, for the most part, did not focus on the interests of the ‘‘middling’’ classes of artisans, tradesmen, seamen, laborers, and small rural farmers, or the increasing numbers of immigrant poor who were flocking to the cities. ‘‘New Left’’ historians, including Gary Nash, have described the role of the common person in the pre-Revolutionary identification of rights and liberties. The resentment toward the wealthy merchants, lawyers, and politicians grew as measures were passed ignoring the plight of the poor, the artisans, and the tradesmen while increasing the revenues for the rich colonists. In these historical accounts the poor claimed as many grievances against the wealthy colonists and their influence over government as they did against the dominance of the English parliament and king. They participated in demonstrations, uprisings, and petitions that reflected a demand for a more egalitarian society than that which existed in the goals of the elite merchants, politicians, and farmers.

As the revolution progressed, the new state governments began the task of writing their constitutions. Each of these new governments adopted its version of a declaration or bill of rights reflecting its previous colonial efforts to create written laws, its adaptations of English rights, and the unique interests of the particular state ratifying conventions. The Bay Colony reduced to writing its Massachusetts Body of Liberties in 1641 and the Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts in 1648. In 1780, their constitution began with ‘‘a declaration of the rights of the inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.’’ As described by Professors Conley and Kaminski in The Bill of Rights and the States, when the new states prioritized the rights that were important:

New Yorkers championed freedom of expression; Rhode Islanders passionately defended religious liberty and church–state separation; Delawareans showed an unusual preoccupation with the right to keep and bear arms; Massachusetts men stoutly objected to unreasonable searches and seizures; Vermonters led the way in abolishing slavery; Rhode Islanders and North Carolinians exalted states’ rights as an antidote to centralized power; and Pennsylvanians and Virginians pioneered in asserting a broad range of individual freedoms.

Because the states were viewed as the primary protectors of the rights of citizens of the states, the Articles of Confederation did not need a declaration of rights.

Progressive historians of the early twentieth century, including Charles Beard, identified conflicting economic interests that divided classes in the colonies and motivated the colonists. These historians examined the self-interest of revolutionary leaders and eventual founding fathers of the Constitution. The economic incentives of those holding wealth and power in the colonies also pitted the Colonists against the British, particularly against Parliament’s imposition of external and internal taxes. The progressive historians focused much of their attention on identifying the incentives that would protect property rights of selfinterested individuals. In this explanation, the rights of the disenfranchised, those held in slavery, or other powerless individuals were not the primary motivation of these revolutionary activities.

A major revision in the history of the causes of the American Revolution occurred with the work of Bernard Bailyn, Gordon S. Wood, and J.G.A. Pocock in what has been termed ‘‘a republican revival’’ or ‘‘neo-Whig’’ history. This interpretation agreed with the earlier Whig interpretations of history that suggested that the colonists feared conspiratorial efforts by Parliament to deprive them of their rights as English citizens. The work of Bailyn and Wood located the intellectual origins of the colonists’ revolutionary rhetoric and action in seventeenth century radical Whig oppositional thought in England.

The civil rights and liberties of the revolutionary era are best understood individually as the states adopted their declarations of rights and the Constitution of 1787 was ratified with a promise of a Bill of Rights. No unified view existed, and all versions excluded many of the peoples of the new governments.

JANIS L. MCDONALD

References and Further Reading

  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967; enl. ed., Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1992. 
  • Beard, Charles A. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1913. 
  • Bancroft, George. History of the United States, vols. 4–7, New York: D. Appleton, 1834–1874. 
  • Berlin, Ira. ‘‘The Revolution in Black Life.’’ In The American Revolution, Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, Alfred F.Young, ed. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976, 349–382. 
  • Calhoun, Robert M. The Loyalists in Revolutionary America, 1760–1781. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973. 
  • Conley, Patrick T., and John P. Kaminski. The Bill of Rights and the States, The Colonial and Revolutionary Origins of American Liberties. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1992. 
  • Higginbotham, Don. ‘‘Loyalist Experiences and Civil Liberties in Wartime.’’ In The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763–1789. New York: Macmillan Co., 1971. 
  • Kerber, Linda. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. 
  • Lemisch. ‘‘Revolution from the Bottom up.’’ In Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History, Barton J. Bernstein, ed. New York: Pantheon Press, 1968. 
  • ———.‘‘The Radicalism of the Inarticulate: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America.’’ In Dissent: Essays in the History of American Radicalism, Alfred F. Young, ed. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1964. 
  • Morgan, Edmund S., and Helen M. Morgan. The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953. 
  • Nash, Gary. Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early America. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974. 
  • ———. ‘‘Social Change and the Growth of Pre-Revolutionary Urban Radicalism.’’ In The American Revolution, Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, Alfred F. Young, ed. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976, 3–36. 
  • ———. ‘‘Also There at the Creation: Going Beyond Gordon S. Wood.’’ WMQ, 3d Ser., XLIV (1987), 602. 
  • Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1980. 
  • Otis, James. A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay. Boston: 1762. 
  • ———. The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. Boston: 1764. 
  • Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975. 
  • Potter, Janice. The Liberty We Seek: Loyalist Ideology in Colonial New York and Massachusetts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983. 
  • Ramsay, David. The History of the American Revolution, 2 vols. Foreword by Lester H. Cohen. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1990. 
  • Reid, John Phillip. Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Rights. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986. 
  • Wilson, Joan Hoff. ‘‘The Negative Impact of the American Revolution.’’ In Major Problems in American Women’s History Series, Mary Beth Norton, ed. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1989. 
  • Warren, Mercy Otis. The History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, Interspersed With Biographical, Political and Moral Observations. Boston, MA: 1814; reprinted in New York: AMS Press, 1970. 
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic: 1776–1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969. 
  • ———. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

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